I am writing this post one month after I ran my marathon. Being injured for several years, it’s been a long time since I’ve raced 26.2 miles, and I forgot what to expect after you run a marathon.
In some respects, I was pleasantly surprised by my marathon recovery. After all, I’ve researched how to recover from a marathon, wrote this popular article, and practiced what I preached: I walked after the finish line, put my legs up, refueled, skipped the celebratory drink, took a week off, and got a massage a couple of days after the race. And, while I felt like I got hit by a bus the day of the marathon—being sore from my ribs to my toes—I felt pretty normal 72 hours after.
I ditched the post-marathon limp and was walking around pretty spritely. Also, I was not as exhausted on the day of the marathon. In fact, I didn’t even nap. Instead, I wrote, read, and chatted with friends. This was surprising.
How I Felt After Running a Marathon
In other respects, I was surprised (somewhat unpleasantly) by how I felt in the weeks after I ran the marathon. My legs felt tired and heavy in my runs for up to four weeks—like my fast twitch muscles forgot how to work. And I was hungry, so hungry for an entire month after running my marathon. This was despite running a much lower volume.
Related: Is it Ok to Run on Tired Legs?
All of this is confounding. After all, when you run a marathon—it’s only for a couple of hours. How can running a marathon have such lasting effects? What happens to your body when you run a marathon? And why does it take so long to recover from running a marathon? Your body has been training for months, running lots of miles, to get ready to run a marathon. How is this any different?
I want to answer these questions—for you and for myself—so that we better understand the amazing feat it is to run a marathon. And, so that we honor the recovery after you run a marathon. I did research and spoke with experts to compile what to expect after you run a marathon.
In this article, I will cover:
- What happens to your body when you run a marathon
- How long does it take to recover from a marathon
- How do you recover from a marathon, and
- What to expect after you run a marathon
Some of this will be surprising to you, and some will be very logical. So, let’s go!
What happens to your body when you run a marathon?
After you run a marathon, expect to feel sore and tired. This is because your entire body takes a hit when you run a marathon.
Studies show that the markers for an acute inflammatory response, C-reactive protein, and acute muscle damage, creatine kinase, are significantly elevated for about a week after the marathon.
Additionally, your body is depleted, notably in fluids and glycogen (even if you fueled well while running the marathon). This will make you feel tired until you’ve eaten carbs and drank enough fluids to replenish your supply.
Your heart, lungs, liver, and diaphragm are also affected when you run a marathon. Studies show the heart muscle is damaged and the lungs and diaphragm are fatigued which can lead to labored breathing.
Indeed, after running CIM, I wasn’t able to take deep breaths for several hours after the marathon (like that feeling you get when running in severe cold—though it wasn’t that cold).
Running coach Laura Norris has a great outline of what happens to your body when you run a marathon here.
How long does it take to recover from a marathon?
It can take a full four weeks for a runner to completely recover from running a marathon.
Runners should take at least one full week of recovery after running a marathon. Runners who take longer than 5 hours to run a marathon should take 10-14 days off from running before resuming training.
If you don’t take enough time off after running a marathon, you will likely face injury, burnout, and/or a performance plateau because your body won’t be operating at full strength.
Related: Why You Need to Take a Running Break
How do you recover from running a marathon?
There are steps you can take to recover faster from a marathon. I review them in detail here, but here are some quick hits for what you do after you run a marathon.
- First, fuel well during your marathon. Aim for at least 60 grams of carbs per hour and hydrate (a few sips of fluids ever mile).
- When you cross the finish line, keep walking. Don’t sit down. Keep the blood flowing.
- Skip the beer, and reach for carbs, protein, and electrolyte drinks fast. Keep up the eating.
- Put your legs up on a wall. Do gentle stretching and foam rolling.
- In the days after, keep eating and most importantly, REST. Do not run! You can go for gentle walks and do light yoga, but don’t do anything strenuous.
What to Expect After You Run a Marathon
Here are 6 things to expect after you run a marathon:
You will be sore.
You damage your muscles, including your heart muscle, kidneys, and liver, when you run a marathon. This is seen in studies that find an elevation in biomarkers such as C-reactive protein, creatine kinase, and creatine kinase MB.
It can take four weeks to repair this tissue damage. Anecdotally, most marathon runners I know (and myself) feel the sorest the second day after the marathon but markedly better three days after running a marathon. However, soreness is present in everyday functions for at least a week post-marathon.
The tissue and skeletal damage after you run a marathon can be enough to lead to injury if you do not properly recover and rest. This damage can also affect muscle function.
Therefore, you must allow your body time to recover after a marathon, including at least one week before gradually resuming marathon training.
You will feel out of shape.
When you return to running, don’t be surprised if you feel out of shape (like I did).
How can this be? You ran a marathon just over a week ago!! Well, your muscles are still healing and the damage from running a marathon can affect muscle function, particularly neuromuscular function. This study found that muscles after an ultra-marathon had reduced muscle twitching response.
This explains why my legs felt heavy for the first 4 weeks after my marathon with increased ground contact and slower turnover.
Cardiovascular detraining can also make you feel out of shape, Norris adds. Even though it takes time to lose your fitness (much more than the week break from running), you will still experience a drop in cardiac stroke output (how much blood your heart can pump per beat) and VO2 Max (how much oxygen your body can absorb during exercise). This is exacerbated if a runner is burnt-out or overtrained, adds Norris.
Some research also suggests that the damage and inflammation of the heart can impact your VO2 Max with more than a 50 percent decrease in function that returned to normal levels 3 months after a marathon,.
Also, because you are requiring more effort for you to move your legs due to the decline in neuromuscular function (and running economy), running will feel harder. But you aren’t out of shape—you are just still recovering, so don’t fret, my pet. It will come back!
(By the way, I ran a “ruster buster” half marathon 5 weeks after my marathon and it did a great job of waking my legs and aerobic system back up. I recommend this!)
Related: What is RPE in Running?
You may have trouble sleeping.
You would think that after running 26.2 miles, you would be ready for a nap. But that’s not the case for a lot of runners. Instead, you’re wired from the experience! And a rush of hormones like adrenaline, cortisol, and norepinephrine can rev up your heart making it hard to settle down. This can last for up to a week after running a marathon!
Related: Can Running Make You Happy?
Some runners may also experience a feeling akin to Restless Leg Syndrome which may also be caused by an elevation in stress hormones and dopamine. Feelings of RLS during training could be a sign of overtraining.
Dehydration, an elevated core body temperature, and caffeine in your energy gels may all contribute to an inability to sleep after you run a marathon.
Related: The Best Energy Gels for Runners
You may catch a cold.
Don’t be surprised if you get sick after running a marathon. Studies show that your immune system is suppressed after you run a marathon. Research shows your immune system is suppressed in a variety of capacities from the number of immune cell numbers to body temperature changes. This immune suppression “open window” is present 3-72 hours after running a marathon.
Related: Can You Go Running with a Cold?
Combine this with being around a lot of people during the race, post-race, and if you travel for a marathon, and you increase your chances of being infected with germs.
(By the way: I somehow avoided getting sick after running CIM. My husband did get sick and my kids were sick when we returned home. I truly believe taking Previnex’s Immune Health PLUS, multivitamin, and probiotic have helped me stay healthy this winter—knock on wood!. Save 15% with code TMR15).
Related: 9 Ways to Stay Healthy This Winter
You won’t be very hungry—and you’ll want to eat EVERYTHING.
Right after you run a marathon, you may not be hungry. Registered sports dietitian Megan Robinson explains why:
“Blood pools to your extremities during running. As the intensity and duration increase, less blood is being utilized for digestion. This results in why you may not feel hungry right after a race. Also, the hormone ghrelin (responsible for hunger) is suppressed and peptide YY is increased, which also reduces hunger,” she says.
But because your body needs nutrients to kickstart the recovery process, it’s important to start taking in carbs and protein even if you don’t want to. Robinson suggests liquid nutrition such as an electrolyte drink or chocolate milk until your hunger returns. Three to four hours after running a marathon, eat a full meal to ramp up your marathon recovery.
In the week after running a marathon, expect to be very hungry (even if you sat around the hotel room after your race eating pizza all day!). Your body was in a calorie deficit and needs additional calories to restore your muscle glycogen and repair muscle fibers, says Robinson. Focus on eating protein every 3-5 hours.
You may gain weight.
Because your training load will be lower in the month after you run a marathon, you may be less hungry. However, many runners (myself included) are used to eating plenty (including carbs) so weight gain after a marathon is not uncommon.
Also, if you lost weight during marathon training, your hunger hormones such as ghrelin may be elevated to return your body to homeostasis.
If you gain some weight after you run a marathon (I did!), don’t stress. Even the pros aren’t at their “racing weight” throughout the year. Think of it as part of the training cycle.
While these qualities of what to expect after you run a marathon may not be incredibly pleasant, I promise you, the benefits of running a marathon far outweigh the positives. And it’s an achievement you will never regret.
If you want guidance with your running goals including marathon training, check out my run coaching services. Also, be sure to check out my free training plans:
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